The publication of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems, encompassing some half a century’s work, is a welcome opportunity to appreciate the full extent of her achievement and leaves one in little doubt that her poetry, by virtue of its emotional depth and imaginative élan, places her in the front rank of poets currently writing in English. And yet, although she received the prestigious Griffin Award in 2016 and in spite of the fact that her work has been attracting an increasing amount of critical attention, her poems are unlikely to be as familiar to British readers as those of her contemporaries, Heaney, Longley or Mahon. To some extent this may be an historical accident. The quality of the poetry written in the North during the Troubles was beyond dispute, but there can be little doubt that its wider dissemination was furthered by those tragic events. By contrast, poets from the South were overlooked. Born in Cork in 1942, Ní Chuilleanáin comes from a prominent Republican family with close ties to the Catholic Church, one effect of which is Ní Chuilleanáin’s self-confessed fascination with nuns. The family is also academic and artistic. Her mother was the well-known writer Eilís Dillon. Her father was a professor of Irish and her sister was a professional musician. Unsurprisingly, much of her poetry is informed by this inheritance.
However, because she is wary of writing in a too obviously autobiographical mode, her poems can be challenging. Whether she is exploring public or private events, her approach is frequently oblique. So it may be helpful for new readers if I share my own first acquaintance with her work. It was in Blackwells, Oxford, in 1972. Having immersed myself in the poems of Montague, Heaney, Mahon and Longley, and intrigued no doubt by the poet’s Gaelic name, I was drawn to Acts and Monuments, her recently published debut collection. Even now, I remember the thrill and bewilderment I felt on reading ‘Lucina Schynning in Silence of the Nicht’, with its strangely archaic title and dreamlike ambiance:
Moon shining in silence of the night
the heaven being all full of stars
I was reading my book in a ruin
by a sour candle, without roast meat or music
strong drink or a shield from the air
blowing in the crazed window, and I felt
moonlight on my head, clear after three days’ rain.
This was poetry on a different wavelength from anything else I had been reading. What drew me in was the clarity of the images, the focus and memorability of the language: ‘I washed in cold water: it was orange, channelled down bogs / dipped between cresses.’ Initially, the fact that I didn’t know who the protagonist was or what exactly was going on was something I would have to live with. Subsequently, I found myself wandering in a kind of parallel universe inhabited by hermits, swineherds, voyagers, exiles, and, occasionally, in poems like ‘Letter to Pearse Hutchinson’ and ‘Going Back to Oxford’, someone who might be the poet herself:
Something to lose; it came in the equipment
alongside the suicide pill and the dark blue card:
‘I am a Catholic, please send for a priest’
with a space below for the next of kin.
Revisiting these poems decades later, it still seems that the most effective way to approach them is to concentrate on those whose surface detail is most alluring and not to worry too much about those whose meaning may at first seem obscure. Gradually, as recurring patterns and themes emerge, one gets an increasing sense of a poet who is striving towards what Pasternak called ‘the heart of the matter’, the truths enshrined in the past, however provisional such ‘truths’ might be. Although narrative is a strong element in Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry, her stories tend to be enigmatic and fragmentary. We nearly always find ourselves in medias res, but our desire for context is all too often subverted. And yet, with some justification, the poet might argue that life is like that. ‘In ‘Family’, she finds a striking image for the elusive nature of reality: ‘Water has no memory / and you drown in it like a kind of absence’. In ‘The House Remembered’, she suggests that truths are not only provisional but also subjective:
The house persists, the permanent
scaffolding while the stones move round …
The stairs and windows waver but the house stands up;
peeling away the walls another set shows through
and somebody was born in every room.
Like Kant, it would seem that Ní Chuilleanáin draws a distinction between ‘the world as it is’, which, ultimately, will always elude us, and ‘the world as we perceive it’. This dichotomy is particularly poignant in ‘A Bridge Between Two Counties’ where it seems that a child is being handed over to a new family. Without knowing any of the details that have preceded this moment, the reader’s perspective is suddenly reduced to that of the child: ‘and the woman paused and passed / the child’s hand / to a glove and a sleeve’. The focus here is cinematic, a technique that the poet frequently uses to powerful effect. In ‘Following’, the opening stanza is a beautifully rendered description of a young child as she ‘follows the trail of her father’s coat through the fair / shouldering past beasts packed solid as books …’ Then there is a sudden shift to an eerier, presumably much later memory:
until she is tracing light footsteps
across the shivering bog by starlight,
the dead corpse risen from the wakehouse
gliding before her in a white habit.
These sudden changes in perspective are at their most challenging in ‘Site of Ambush’, a sequence in eight sections which is the centrepiece of her second collection. Given the poet’s upbringing in Cork, one might be entitled to presume that the poem is about the notorious ambush of Michael Collins. However, this does not seem to be the case. Its brief opening section, ‘Reflection’, is enigmatic: ‘You are not the sun or moon / but the wolf that will swallow down both sun and moon.’ However, this soon gives way, in ‘Narration’, to a realistic description of soldiers preparing for a military engagement: ‘At ten the soldiers were climbing into lorries, / asthmatic engines drawing breath in even shifts’. Thereafter, the ‘narrative’ becomes increasingly dreamlike as it moves across a locale haunted by ghostlike presences: the soldiers, a deaf child, a girl whose hair has been cropped, an old man sitting on a bench and then, in the sixth section, ‘Voyagers’, mythological heroes like Maelduin and Odysseus. It’s a poem in which, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, all time seems eternally present. Elsewhere, the poet’s probing of the Irish past is more immediately accessible in those poems where historical figures are more clearly delineated: James Connolly, Maria Edgeworth, or members of her own family, as in ‘On Lacking the Killer Instinct’. Written in memory of her father, it describes his narrow escape from the Black and Tans, but expresses also his concern that he might be putting at risk the people who were giving him shelter: ‘Should he have chanced that door?’ In ‘Daniel Grose’, we are taken back to the eighteenth century, where a ‘military draughtsman / is training his eye / on the upright of the tower’. He is completing Antiquities of Ireland, a sequence of drawings for an audience whose interest in Irish history is no more than ‘a taste for ruins’. It takes the poet to remind us that the picture is incomplete:
No crowds engaged in rape or killing,
no marshalling of boy soldiers,
no cutting the hair of novices.
In ‘Old Roads’, the map of Ireland has been redrawn so that all trace of the Gaelic past has slowly been eroded. However, in ‘A Map of Convents’, Ní Chuilleanáin celebrates the work of Nano Nagle, the founder of the Presentation Sisters and a pioneer of Catholic education at the time of the Penal Laws: ‘There was another map, / of a different place, in her head; she told nobody.’
The poet’s admiration for Nano Nagle is clear and there are poems, also, in which she writes with affection of others who have embraced the religious life, such as three of her father’s sisters. She is also fascinated by the cloistered lives of nuns who have created their own separate society independently of men. In ‘To the Mother House’, she commends the nuns’ selfless commitment to comforting and healing the sick: ‘There was a war coming, there was work. The novices / would never see a soldier, only smile / at meagre faces in the alpine sanatorium.’ In ‘The Real Thing’, the subjective nature of reality is seen in the context of religious faith and the nuns’ belief in the true nature of a holy relic, ‘the longest / known fragment of the Brazen Serpent’; while ‘J’ai mal à nos dents’ is a touching portrayal of one of the poet’s aunts who joined a convent in France. The poem’s offbeat title derives from the fact that the sisters, who have given up all personal possessions, avoid using the word ‘my’. It is not entirely clear, to this reader at least, what the poet’s personal relationship with Catholicism might be. However, in ‘Translation’, which was written ‘for the reburial of the Magdalenes’, she expresses her solidarity with those young unmarried mothers who suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church: ‘there are women here from every county, / just as there were in the laundry’; while in ‘Bessboro’ she describes a notorious mother and baby unit:
This is what I inherit –
it was never my own life,
but a house’s name I heard
and others heard as a warning
of what might happen a girl
daring and caught by ill luck:
a fragment of desolate
fact, a hammer-note of fear –
The various scandals which have, in recent decades, undermined the once inviolable authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland are only one aspect of Ní Chuilleanáin’s concern for those forces which have led to the marginalisation and repression of women. In ‘St Margaret of Cortona’, we see how, in spite of her canonization, this patron saint of single mothers, reformed prostitutes, and all those who are falsely accused, cannot herself escape being categorized and even denigrated by men:
She had become, the preacher hollows his voice,
a name not to be spoken, the answer
to the witty man’s loose riddle, what’s she
that’s neither maiden, window nor wife?
In the early poem, ‘Odysseus Meets the Ghosts of the Women’, a contrast is drawn between the heroic agendas of men and the untold stories of the women they leave behind: ‘the longhaired goldbound women who had died / of pestilence, famine, in slavery.’ However, in ‘Pygmalion’s Image’, we are given a powerful sense of female emancipation when a discarded statue comes to life and finds its own voice:
The crisp hair is real, wriggling like snakes;
a rustle of veins, tick of blood in the throat;
the lines of the face tangle and catch, and
a green leaf of language comes twisting out of her mouth.
Perhaps that image of female empowerment is as good a place as any to draw a line. Within the relatively brief compass of a review it is only possible to hint at the subtlety, richness and transformative power of these poems. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems is a uniquely compelling body of work that has the coherence and inevitability of a natural growth. It is a fitting monument to her passionate concern to ride ‘the horses of meaning’ and to ‘let their hooves print the next bit of the story.’